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Is foreign aid to Africa making matters worse?

(December 9, 2013) Travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux believes that decades of foreign aid to Africa has hampered the continent’s development.

Review by Brady Yauch for Probe International

Acclaimed author Paul Theroux has some sharp words about foreign aid in Africa: It has failed. In a feature-length post for Barron’s, the travel writer and novelist says that nearly 50 years after he first lived and worked on the continent, it is now “poorer, sicker, less educated, and more badly governed.”

“It seems that much of the aid has made things worse,” he concludes.

Theroux believes that the main problem with foreign aid is that it has made Africa dependent on outsiders for many of its basic needs, even in sectors where it is fully capable. He describes a school that he worked at more than 40 years ago that was supposed to educate young students to become teacher-trainers and replace the American volunteers. Four decades later, he says, the foreign teachers are still a mainstay.

“This suggests a reason why Africa can’t move forward. Training teachers has been a priority of the post-colonial African government of independent Malawi; education was equated with economic salvation. Now, 50 years later, the education system in Malawi is still faltering. Why? Because teaching as a profession in Malawi, and many parts of Africa, is undervalued, if not despised, and poorly paid. Besides, you can always find a foreign teacher willing to do the work: American, British, Japanese, Australian.”

He adds that a near unlimited supply of foreign teachers from the Western world, sponsored by their own governments, who want to do good by volunteering in Africa means local governments don’t have to ensure that the rural education system – which African teachers would rather avoid – offers a rewarding career. Instead, African governments can rely on the steady stream of foreign aid do-gooders in pursuit of a rewarding experience.

“I thought I was part of the solution in Malawi, and the experience changed my life in profound ways – as a man, as a writer, as a traveler; but I see I was part of the problem,” he writes.

But that’s just one example. Theroux describes a scene where American beer scion-turned philanthropist, John Coors, flew a team of doctors and dentists to small village in Kenya to treat anyone in the immediate area and admitted that once the mission was over after just a few days, there were still thousands of people waiting for treatment. “But wait,” said Theroux, there exists in Kenya The University of Nairobi School of Dental Sciences – which has been around for decades – that is more than capable of handling such duties.

“If Kenyan dentists are not willing to travel a few hundred miles into the highlands or the bush to see to the needs of their fellow citizens, why should American dentists travel 10,000 miles to do so?” he writes. “That question also contains the answer: because American telescopic philanthropists provide health care for Kenya and many other African countries, there is little incentive for local doctors to engage in philanthropy.”

Taking a phrase from Charles Dickens, the famous 19th century British novelist, “telescopic philanthropists” are those individuals that try and uplift a continent from afar, Theroux writes.

He then describes a similar scene in Uganda and concludes that thousands of African dentists, doctors and other health officials decide to either stay in the big cities or leave the country altogether, as the foreign aid agencies and NGOs are all too willing to offer healthcare in rural regions, while the nation’s professionals seek better paying jobs elsewhere.

Worse still, Theroux writes, that poorly planned and failed aid projects in Africa are a longstanding tradition, spanning back until the 1800s – yet each generation keeps on going back for more in the belief that their ideas are the right ones for the African people. New ideas about microfinance and venture start-up funds by American philanthropists are just a new twist on an old narcissism.

Theroux also believes that the culture of corruption that has taken root in Africa has pushed many of the continent’s best and brightest to emigrate. Years ago, he says, most young students talked about building nations.

“But on my trips through Africa in the past dozen years, all I hear in classrooms, in markets, on buses and trains, is the desire to flee. They emigrate and they shine. That’s the universal human drive when corruption has quashed all hope: The most ambitious go where they stand a fighting chance to prosper quietly and safely and raise a family in peace,” he writes.

He ends by challenging the presumption that Africans – and by extension other residents of the developing world – are incapable of taking care of themselves.

Brady Yauch is an economist at Probe International. 

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